Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


NORTH WEST FRONTIER. The Rank Organisation, UK, 1959. US title: Flame Over India. Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom, Wilfrid Hyde-White, I. S. Johar, Ian Hunter. Directed by J. Lee Thompson.

   Set your movie on a train and you already have my attention. Make one of the classic action films of all time with a first rate cast and superb tension from an expert at directing action and suspense (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) *, and you have a first rate film shot in gorgeous color and on location.

   Kenneth More is a British officer in command of a small troop of Sikhs in an isolated kingdom on India’s rugged outlaw ridden northwest frontier. A rebellion has broken out against the local Maharajah, and the British consul (Ian Hunter) wants More to get a group of Europeans trapped in the palace out safely — and along with them, the Maharajah’s young son and his American tutor (Lauren Bacall).

   Among the European’s are a Dutch journalist with Indian blood (Lom), a garrulous older man (Hyde-White), a gun runner, and a redoubtable older Englishwoman. Their only means of escape an aging train engine, her Indian driver (I. S. Johar), one coal car, a flat car, and a passenger car.

   Film goers used to today’s frenetically paced films will find the fact this one bothers to stop to develop character, build an intriguing relationship between professional soldier More and doubting American Bacall, and establish the other characters as well, a bit slow, but even they will be impressed by the action sequences beginning with the breakout from the surrounded palace in the train and including running gun fights, a perilously damaged bridge across a precipitous gorge, and a final full out assault by hordes of tribesmen on horseback while a traitor in their midst pins the passengers and soldiers down with a .50 caliber machine gun he has taken over.

   More and Bacall have real spark together, Lom provides both menace and depth, and Hyde White is his usual charming self, but the real surprise of the film is Johar, who takes what could be a stereotyped local and gives him both real courage, strength, determination, and character. Both he, and through him the aging train engine he loves, become compelling characters in the film.


   He takes what could be an embarrassing and potentially racist stereotype and gives him dignity and humanity.

   The film isn’t an old fashioned paean to the Raj though, in the Gunga Din or Lives of the Bengal Lancers tradition. It asks questions, and while it is unstinting in its admiration for More’s professional soldier, it, and Bacall’s character, bring up the question of what right he or the British Empire has there. And More is no superman, but a tough wry professional, limited perhaps in his devotion to his duty, but also human, canny, good humored, and courageous.

   This is a stunningly photographed film with an intelligent script and a real sense of the time and the place.

   One scene in particular in a crowded engine room while a rickety and dangerously open donkey engine runs the pumps to water the train’s engine while Lom is left alone with the prince is splendidly shot and guaranteed to get you on the edge of your seat.


   Within the confines of an action packed thriller it takes on questions of race, fanaticism, duty, freedom, and individual courage without ever faltering in the line of suspense and action or brushing the questions it asks off with simple answers.

   In relation to what has been happening in the Middle East in recent years it may be as pertinent as ever.

   Granted, despite the best efforts of all concerned there isn’t a lot of doubt who the villain proves to be, but that said, he is given both dignity and depth. You may be pulling for him to fail and cheering for the heroes to escape, but you can’t ignore his points or his own plight. All the major characters are presented as real humans rising or failing to rise in a crisis, not as mere plot points.

   And the film manages to end on a nice note of irony — a recognition that an era was coming to an end and a new world being born. It’s the perfect coda to a first class adventure film and a fine study of people caught in desperate circumstances and showing grace under pressure.

    * Sadly Thompson did not live up to his early films and ended up hacking out some tired and unimpressive Charles Bronson films late in his career.